After a challenging start to the season, Red Bull Racing will be keen to make up lost ground to championship rivals Mercedes and Ferrari. As the Bahrain test gets underway this week, Karun Chandhok speaks to team boss Christian Horner about the prospect of progress and the challenge to become competitive, quickly.
Flashback to the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix and Red Bull Racing have just taken the first of their 52 Formula One race victories. Sebastian Vettel has dominated the race in torrential wet conditions and, after losing out to the double diffuser-aided Brawn of Jenson Button later that year, the following season would mark the start of a dominant period for the new team, which would eventually see them secure successive World Championships over the next 4 seasons.
As we get to pre-season testing in 2014, the introduction of a new V6 hybrid sees to it that, all of a sudden, the F1 world has become something different. After years of dominance, the sight of a Red Bull parked on the side of the track with very few laps on the board quickly becomes a common sight. The Mercedes powered cars go round and round – lapping reliably, consistently and quickly. Three seasons later, Red Bull Racing has won just 5 races and has been effectively trounced by Mercedes. Although, to be fair, so has everyone else.
Though there was plenty of public mud-slinging along the way – notably with engine partners Renault – eventually, Red Bull realised that the team’s only strategic choice would be to repair the relationship with their French counterparts.
In doing so, things seemed to take a good step forward. By the time 2016 came about, it looked as if the Renault power unit was – in race mode – no longer a million miles away from the benchmark that was Mercedes and, to a lesser extent, Ferrari.
Coming into the 2017 season, the sport has of course undergone a new set of regulation changes, with a big emphasis on new aerodynamics. At Red Bull, the ace technical team of Adrian Newey, Dan Fallows, Rob Marshall and Paul Monaghan were still in place. The team’s pedigree in this department is such that, every year, the world of F1 waits to see what they’ve come up with. Indeed, their chassis development has long been the gold standard – and they even managed to make the ugly 2009 rules look good!
Surely, then, this season’s car was going to be the golden opportunity the team needed to propel themselves ahead of Mercedes and reclaim the top spot?
Except it hasn’t.
In fact, at the moment, Red Bull has taken a step backwards relative to Ferrari – a team they outperformed last year. Has it been a surprise? I put the question to Team Principal Christian Horner during the Chinese Grand Prix weekend: “We could see from pre-season that Mercedes looked strong and Ferrari had had a good winter but, to be honest with you, having analysed Australia, our performance relative to 12 months ago is nearly identical in terms of the amount of time we need to find to catch the guys up front.”
He certainly has a point. In the three qualifying sessions so far this season, the fastest Red Bull has been 1.3 seconds away from pole position in Australia and Shanghai, and 0.8 seconds away in Bahrain. Last year’s opening two races saw the team’s best car 1.7 and 1.4 seconds off pole for the first two races, but only 0.5 seconds away at the third. So, in some way, you could argue that the situation now is at least a bit better than that. However, it’s also true to say that it may be trickier to get the big results now because Ferrari have made such a big step forward with their new car.
Watching out on track and speaking to the drivers, it’s fairly evident that the time deficit isn’t just coming from performance on the straights. Sure, they may still be missing a couple of tenths in terms of out-and-out power, but the Red Bull cars just don’t seem to have the grip in the corners.
A keen eye at pre-season testing, as well as at the first race in Melbourne, it was clear straight away that the RB13 didn’t have the rear end stability and grip that the drivers would need to attack the entry into, in particular, the medium and slow speed corners. When you watch the likes of Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton on track, they’re able to really hustle the car on entry and aggressively turn the wheel, with the belief that their car is going to just stick to the road and allow them to carry the speed through.
In China, it looked like Red Bull once again had a very tricky car to drive, with understeer on the way in and struggles with the rear end coming out of the corners. With the unique long radius corners that dominate the Shanghai International Circuit, it would be unfair to cite that as an indicator of what the inherent balance is in the car. It is, however, right to say that the usual suspects, Ferrari and Mercedes were able to get their cars balanced, even with the limited running. And, despite Max Verstappen’s heroics early on, Vettel pulled 38 seconds in 28 laps over the Red Bulls once he got clear of Max.
Horner, however, remains optimistic in the team’s capability when it comes to development. “Last year, we managed to develop the car quite successfully and finish up ahead of Ferrari, winning a couple of races along the way. We’re confident we have a good basis of a car in RB13. The operating window of the car is pretty narrow and it will be a constant evolution and development [to improve that] through the season.”
Visually, the RB13 looks like a somewhat less complex car than the W08 from Brackley, or the SF70H from Maranello. The team has opted for the sensible approach of not wanting to rush bits through and, instead, they are trying to understand what they’ve got at the moment before rushing into making wholesale changes, as Horner explains: “[We are] focusing on development path and direction, rather than just throwing bits at the car. We’ve got some key areas of performance where we see some development potential, and that’s where the team is focused”.
On the power unit side, Ferrari seem to have made a big step forward, in particular with the qualifying engine mode, and that’s something that Renault will have to push to develop. Track position this year is more critical than in recent years and, therefore, anything you can do to move up the grid in qualifying will prove very beneficial come the race itself.
Another change that’s happened over the winter for Red Bull is the swap to ExxonMobil as a fuel and lubricants partner for 2017. Fuel development has come into the limelight again in this V6 hybrid era, after a decade or so of being relatively under the radar. “ExxonMobil have demonstrated in a very short space of time that their technical prowess is quite remarkable”, says Horner. “Their speed of reaction and development rate is stunning. We’re already seeing the benefits with that, and they’re working in close collaboration with our engine partner because, of course, the product has to work with those engine parameters.”
One department where Red Bull certainly look to have the upper hand over their German and Italian rivals is in the driving department. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are unquestionably two of the brightest stars of F1, both of whom we’re going to be seeing for a long time to come in the sport.
The pair are very evenly matched, with Daniel perhaps the slightly better qualified. While Max is a heck of a racer, with great feel in low grid conditions, and seemingly no fear when it comes to trying overtaking moves where nobody else will. The Chinese Grand Prix illustrated why this could be very useful in the Constructors’ Championship this year, with RBR managing to get their two cars ahead of both a Ferrari and a Mercedes.
With plenty of contracts up for renewal at the end of 2017, the F1 silly season is sure to go into overdrive. And, as such, Horner seems relieved not to have an added headache in that regard: “For next year, it [the driver market] is not something we have to get involved in. We’ll be interested observers but, thankfully, not involved.”
When I was checking in to my flight to Bahrain, there was a man next to me from the Red Bull Racing team, carrying 7 huge boxes of what is easily recognised as last minute car bits! Whether they were used or not is hard to tell, but the team were closer in terms of qualifying pace, which is encouraging. Eventually finishing almost 40 seconds behind Vettel after 40 laps of green flag running from the restart, however, still shows that there’s much ground to make up.
With Renault having mentioned that their engine upgrade is unlikely to arrive before Montreal, that leaves the Milton Keynes arm of the team to get on top of the chassis. The two day test in Bahrain this week will be critical, and I leave the final word to Horner as I ask him how he thinks their season will go from here: “I think we will have a stronger second half”, he says. “But it’s important not to give away too much ground, so we’ll be fighting hard in the [next few] races.”